Two names synonymous with N.O.: Hurricanes, football

By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports

As a siren named Dorian churned toward a collision with Florida’s Atlantic coast, she brought to mind other meteorological Valkyries that wreaked havoc on the New Orleans area over the decades.

Betsy, Georges, Audrey, Florence, Rita and the most memorable still etched into our minds, Katrina, are names that are infamous to those of us who remember them. 

Even before hurricanes were given names, major cyclones born at sea had zeroed in on the Crescent City. Two, in particular, in 1915 and 1947, caused major destruction, and like the others, they occurred at the start of the football season. 

I remember reading the handwritten text from a Jesuit principal’s log penned in 1915, which I used in writing “The Golden Game: When Prep Football was King in New Orleans”: “Hurricane coming. Boys dismissed at 10:20 a.m. At 5 p.m., the hurricane arrived. Storm did great damage to the city, demolishing churches and large buildings. We were lucky – only a few windows broken in the school.”

With no early meteorological warning system, the city was caught off guard as the massive storm swept through, claiming in its wake 350 people and hundreds of downed electrical lines. There was neither telephone nor streetcar service available for days. Only a handful of students showed up for school at Jesuit the next day. They were dismissed after roll call.

Yet, the spirit of competition lived on. And the city’s four schools that fielded football teams back then – Jesuit, Warren Easton Boys High and the uptown schools of Manual Training and Rugby Academy – prepared to play at least a limited schedule.

Birth of a rivalry

The Jesuit-Easton rivalry was hardly that until this particular season. The Perry Roehm-coached, public-school squad had a decisive victory margin over the Catholic school, coached by Nevin “Bobo” O’Brien. But O’Brien was confident his lads were ready to take on the city’s premier public school and return the city to some degree of normalcy in doing so.

The two mentors arranged a game for Thanksgiving Day, just seven weeks away. The date was significant because Tulane was scheduled to play LSU on that date in Baton Rouge, leaving the city’s two archrival high schools no competition for the local dollar at Heinemann Park.

After much juggling of schedules and cancellations caused by hampered travel over the state’s battered highways, the season finally began on Oct. 10.

Leading up to the 3 p.m. Turkey Day match, Jesuit defeated Thibodaux, Rugby and Amite, tied Gulf Coast Military Academy and lost to St. Paul’s. Warren Easton allowed opponents just 13 points in winning its games against Bogalusa; Chamberlain-Hunt of Port Gibson, Mississippi; Rugby; Manual Training; and Baton Rouge High.

Although Easton had a distinct size and weight advantage, a battle of wills raged through four, 15-minute periods. But the crowd of 1,800 spectators left the stadium unfulfilled as the final score was 12-12.

After consulting with their players, the two coaches agreed to play a second game to benefit The Times-Picayune’s Doll and Toy Fund, which provided Christmas gifts for orphaned children. 

An enormous crowd of 3,000 was on hand to see Easton pull off a 13-12 victory and witness the birth of a rivalry that continued off and on for 102 years.

The storm of ’47

Interest in the 1947 season had been building since the late summer when teams returned to their practice fields. 

Everyone could hardly wait to see who would be the league’s best running back: John Petitbon, who led Jesuit to a 13-0 season and state title the year before, or Holy Cross’ Hank Lauricella. And not even a hurricane that struck the city with 90 mph winds on Sept. 9 kept high school games from taking place just a few days later. 

The city and the competition stood strong against the battering of fierce rain and wind and $3 million in property damage. The hurricane claimed 51 lives, flooded Jefferson Parish from the 17th Street Canal to Bonnabel Place, and destroyed the lighthouse at the foot of Lake Pontchartrain and the mouth of the New Basin Canal. Yet, the prep football season kicked off on Sept. 22.

Even the six small Jefferson Parish schools in the Riverside League played a full season in spite of the late start. 

Jesuit defeated Holy Cross, 26-0, but the Tigers downed Warren Easton, 18-6, for the city championship when the Blue Jays were upset by Fortier, 7-2, and lost to Easton, 14-6. Holy Cross lost a 6-0 decision to Bogalusa in the first playoff round. But who was the star back?

Petitbon went on to become an All-American at Notre Dame, and Lauricella was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1951 as the Tennessee tailback. You tell me.

The game plays on

Hurricane Betsy made landfall at Grand Isle on Sept. 10, 1965, with 160-mph winds and a forward speed of 22 mph. The city witnessed its worst flooding in decades. It was reported that the damage in this part of the state reached $1.4 billion. Eighty-one people died.

But after days of pumping flood water from the city and immediate area, a full football season took place for every school.

And few schools welcomed it more than a handful of football fledglings trying to establish their tiny niche in the football community.

In an effort to attract more students, Cor Jesu started a football program. Just a few years earlier, John Curtis, the former principal at Mid-City Baptist, opened his own school in River Ridge. Archbishops Rummel and Shaw established themselves as Catholic schools in Jefferson Parish, and Ridgewood was fresh from a Class B state title in 1964.

Three bayou-area schools – Thibodaux, Terrebonne and South Terrebonne – were temporarily part of the Catholic League, and the Jefferson Parish consolidations of East and West Jefferson dominated the Public League, now placed in districts.

Jesuit and West Jeff won the AAA district titles, but were eliminated the first playoff round.

No storm and its aftermath caused as much damage as Hurricane Katrina to the GNO area: $125 billion in property damage and 1,833 fatalities.

I remember having an early dinner at a restaurant on my way to the Archbishop Hannan Jamboree in Meraux on a Friday. I watched the storm whisk its way toward the area on a TV near my table. Four days later, that restaurant no longer existed.

As levees were breached throughout the area and floodwaters rushed into communities, it became doubtful that high school sports would continue for any foreseeable time. Several schools were never able to open.

The names read like monuments of an era gone by – Alfred Lawless, Sarah Reed, John F. Kennedy, Marion Abramson.

A sign greeting new and returning students at the shambled Redeemer-Seton building and campus in Gentilly served as a grim reminder of Katrina’s lasting effects.

That school, which carried the legacy of the former Redemptorist High, ceased to exist, leaving just fond memories for the broken-heared alumni that supported the former Irish Channel school over the decades.

Today, it is part of the baseball stadium behind the Student Center at Holy Cross. Resiliancy was hard to maintain as students and their families became refugees living in other parts of the state or beyond. Those student athletes who remained attended the few area schools that were able to open.

Henry’s execitive decision

LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry declared New Orleans an “open” city, and every student athlete was deemed eligible to play at whatever school he or she was attending. Further, Henry allowed any school in the New Orleans area able to play a game would qualify for a playoff berth.

Because of the extensive damage Katrina and evacuees caused to the Superdome, the high school championship games had to be moved to Shreveport.

Of the local Catholic schools able to resume their seasons, Holy Cross managed to play six games; Rummel, four; Jesuit, three; and Brother Martin, two.

St. Charles Catholic played nine games and met Curtis for the Class 2A state championship on a sunny, but subfreezing day at Independence Stadium.

De La Salle’s games were attended by National Guard troops, housed at the school in the months following the storm.

The city’s oldest continuous rivalry was also salvaged by its coaches, Barry Wilson of Holy Cross and Vic Eumont of Jesuit. The former Holy Cross stars borrowed equipment and whatever they could salvage from their battered schools and gathered enough displaced players to stage a game on Oct. 22 at Yenni Stadium.

The boys, playing on teams patched together at the last minute, put on a historic and exciting show. There were many young players shuttling in and out of the lineups. Holy Cross won the game, 20-10, but more significantly, the rivalry remained intact.

On Oct. 4, the two rivals will meet each other for the 100th time.

So, plod forth all you want, Dorian. If you find our shores again, you will face a historically proud and formidable opponent: the City of New Orleans and will to overcome adversity.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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